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by evan-pak

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I have just bought a new DSLR (a Nikon D3000). I want to take photos of flying birds, mountains, and close-up portraits. Is there a single lens well-suited for these types of photography, so that I don't need to carry multiple lens while traveling?

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This kind of question comes up very often with different combination of subjects and, no matter how often it is asked, the answer is still NO. If needed such a range in a single, you should have bought an ultra-zoom instead of a DSLR. One of the beauties of a DSLR is the ability to change lens, so I suggest you make friends with it.

Birds are extremely demanding because they are small and usually distant. You need very heavy and expensive glass to get the best shots of birds. Most people who are not pros compromise by getting a low-qualty super-telephoto zoom. The most popular one is the Sigma 50-500mm.

For portraits you need a bright lens with medium focal-length. The wide aperture of such lenses is great for throwing the background out of focus as in class portrait. These lenses can be small and light, depending on the quality you are looking for. A great one is the Nikkor 50mm F/1.4G.

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Do you think the 50-500mm could be used for portraits, particularly if they're tightly composed and the subject is somewhat distant? – mattdm Jan 2 '12 at 17:15
@mattdm: 2 Kg (4.3 lb) - not ideal for "close up portraits" ;-) – RedGrittyBrick Jan 2 '12 at 18:22
Usable is very relative but I would say no. The aperture goes down to F/6.3 quickly and starts at F/4.5. This would require a lot of light (or very high ISOs) to get shutter-speeds needed for a sharp portrait. – Itai Jan 2 '12 at 18:33
@Itai: or a flash, yeah? – mattdm Jan 3 '12 at 1:06
Flash is a can of worms. I wouldn't go there for a beginner. – Itai Jan 3 '12 at 1:32

For portraits ideally you want something in the 50-85mm range. An f/1.4 or f/1.8 is ideal for throwing the background out of focus.

For landscapes I think you generally want as wide as possible. I prefer betwen 10-35mm. You will want to use a tripod and stop the lens down for maximum DOF, so you don't need a fast lens.

For birds, you need as much focal length as possible. At least 200mm, but 300-500mm if you can.

Now if you are travelling and want to combine all of these. Well you can't really get a 10-300m f/2.8 superzoom. You'll need to take at least two lenses, or compromise.

If you insist on one lens, the 18-200mm does a good all around job. It's also a compromise: pretty good for landscapes, fair for portraits, very good as a general travel lens, fair to poor for birds (not as sharp or as fast AF as an f/2.8 tele/zoom)

With two lenses, something like a 17-55mm f/2.8 and an 80-200mm f/2.8. The latter is a an awfully bulky lens for travelling, but it takes nice outdoor portraits and would be suitable for some bird photography, like gulls at the seashore, and works well with a teleconverter.

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I know that very shallow depth of field is in vogue, but I find f/1.4 or even f/1.8 pretty hard to work for close-up portraits at 50mm. Forget the background — one can't get the nose and the ears both in focus at once. A narrower aperture and better lighting can be an alternative. – mattdm Jan 3 '12 at 1:05
I like the answer, but disagree with the part about ultra wide for landscapes. Landscapes pretty much require the full gamut of lenses. – dpollitt Jan 3 '12 at 1:06

I do not think, there is a single lens for this purpose for good price for you. I am using the kit lens Pentax 18-55 DAL for landscape photography and it could be probably also used for hobby portraits.

My other lens - Tamron 70-300 Macro is relatively cheap and can be used to shot distant birds etc. - of course, with some limitations...

However, as already mentioned, shooting birds is very demanding. You need a telephoto lens with very quick focus. This holiday I visited Rancho Texas park on Lanzarote and tried to shot some photos during the bird of prey show. I visited it twice and found it very difficult to get a good photo. I tried both the kit pentax and the telephoto tamron. In this particular case, the pentax was better because it has quicker focus and was more flexible. However, from a huge amount (used burst mode), only few photos were good.

PS: the 70-300 Tamron is relatively light telephoto so it is not a big problem to carry it. :-)

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For birds, you need to either get very close and/or require a very long focal length (400mm+) and high speed (as they move quickly).
For mountains you will likely want a short focal length, unless you want to photograph them from far away of course.
For portraits, something in between is needed.

The 50-500 Sigma as mentioned in theory is a nice lens, but you'll be restricted by its size, weight, and poor low light performance. Far better to buy multiple lenses, one for each of your interests.
For your birds, a 300mm f/2.8 with 1.4x teleconverter is ideal, but a 70-200 f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter will work as well (the latter can also work as a portrait lens if need be).
For portraits, a 70mm f/2.8 or similar is ideal. Small, light, very good optics.
And for your landscapes, a 20mm f/2.8 or something in that range.

Not what you wanted to hear no doubt, but I'd not recommend anyone buying a single lens for such diverse interests as you list.

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